Brittany Burke

Game Changers

Kelli Stack was 28 years old when she quit. A two-time Olympic hockey silver medalist and one of the most recognizable members on the American national team, Stack didn’t quit because she couldn’t play at the highest levels. Stack wasn’t too old or broken down; she felt she had several good years left.

She stopped playing hockey because she couldn’t afford it.

Stack had recently bought a house and her monthly stipend from the national team didn’t cover her mortgage payment. She needed to get a “real job” and made the decision to put hockey on the backburner.

The United States’ Olympic men’s team doesn’t have that problem. They have NHL salaries to supplement their lifestyle and teams that provide all of the necessities needed to play professionally. Unfortunately for Stack and other members of the women’s national team, unless they were training with the team, that wasn’t a luxury they had at their disposal. In non-Olympic years, Stack was a member of the Boston Blades as part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), but her paychecks came scarcely under the league’s performance-based model.

That was, until the creation of the National Women’s Hockey League. The first of its kind in North America, the NWHL promised one thing that could be a game-changer: To pay the women to play.

“I just took time off from hockey to work a real job, and once I knew the NWHL was starting I was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ It literally changed the next four years of my life,” explained Stack during the league’s media day. “I was going to be done playing hockey at the age of 26 knowing that I probably could keep playing for at least another four years, so it just gave me a new motivation, a new hope for hockey.”

The NWHL has an average salary of $15,000 and a salary cap of $270,000 per team. Stack is the highest-paid player in the league at $25,000 for the season.

The league is comprised of four founding teams scattered along the East Coast in what commissioner Dani Rylan considered to be USA Hockey’s most densely populated areas for girl signups. There are two teams in New York, the Buffalo Beauts and New York Riveters, and one team in Boston, the Boston Pride. Stack plays for the CT Whale, which is based out of Stamford, a mere two hours drive from her home.

“I’m in my car for four hours total, I’m on the ice for an hour and a half and you know, I’m not working 9-5, but that is my work day,” Stack says. “So looking at it that way and I’m getting paid to do this? It’s really not that bad when I think about it.”

Prior to the league’s creation, Rylan had looked into an expansion team with the CWHL, which would have extended the league from five teams to at least six. The potential expansion club would have joined the Calgary Inferno, Les Canadiennes, Brampton Thunder and Toronto Furies as well as the only American team, the Blades.

Instead, Rylan opted to form the NWHL and put a competing team in Boston.

“We had negotiated in bringing an expansion team into our league which we thought was essential and we welcomed that and worked with [Rylan] highly,” explained CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress. “We were quite taken back with what happened we were very surprised by it and I don’t know why — you’d have to ask her why she chose a different route — but for us it was like creating one league.”

Having two competing leagues in a sport that’s still trying to gain widespread recognition didn’t come without skepticism.

Early on, questions arose about the NWHL’s staying power. While Rylan has since brought on Dunkin’ Donuts as a corporate sponsor and the New England Sports Network as a broadcaster for Pride games, the league started this season completely funded by private investors.

It’s unclear whether or not the donors, who Rylan prefers not to name, will continue funding the league into the second season, but two large, hockey-centric brands are a step in the right direction in creating a sustainable league.

“I think it says a lot about our stability that we’re building this for the long haul and getting the right brands to support us,” explained Rylan. “ … Obviously there’s the focus on getting more sponsorships and the broadcast deals. NESN is just the New England Sports Net and we have a certain amount of responsibility to our investors. It’s a focus of ours to make sure that we track down the next sponsorship deal.”

The CWHL, which was founded in 2007, found that staying power by working toward a pay-for-play model. However, the way in which they’re getting to that point differs, according to CWHL board member and NHL executive Brian Burke.

“(Our goal) is a sustainable business model that ultimately turns into a league where women are paid professionally and they don’t have to hold outside jobs, even if the dollars aren’t close to equal, but comparable to male athletes that don’t have to work,” Burke explained over the phone. “Their lifestyle and means are covered by what they get paid by pro hockey.”

Andress says the CWHL offers different forms of compensation while paying workers, which she says is growing the base from which the league can grow.

“We pay our players too we just don’t pay them a salary,” said Andress. “We pay them smaller amounts of dollars and you know, what divides from a professional league, at what amount? We paid the players the last couple of years for winning the Clarkson Cup, for winning the Chairman’s trophy those are increases this year. Next year, you’ll see it increase more.”

Compensation from the CWHL wasn’t enough for some who opted to leave for the NWHL, including Hilary Knight. The Team USA Star has been one of the loudest voices in this fight.

“We’d run into problems where we’d show up to the rink and still have to pay to play and now with the NWHL that’s not an issue. Now we’re getting paid to play and it’s all these little ancillary costs that you don’t even think of that eventually add up.” Knight said while surrounded by fellow NWHL players at media day.

“You know, skate sharpening, tape, paying for parking, gas, all these things that roll under this one umbrella that it takes to play professionally before that are now being taken care of.”

Knight, like Stack, played for the Blades but left to join the NWHL and the Pride.

[parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2016/03/160301-nwhl-rylan22.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

The animosity and competition between the two leagues, even though it might not be outwardly spoken, could be a hindrance to the growth of the sport, especially with both leagues vying for the opportunity to work with the NHL.

“That’s the ultimate. The NHL has the biggest hockey fan base, of course, so I think the more we can work together the better it can be,” said Rylan a week after the Pride played Les Canadiennes the weekend of the NHL’s Winter Classic.

“The NHL has always supported us from the start,” said Andress in a separate interview. “Gary Bettman has openly said he supports the CWHL and he supports women’s hockey and he’s standing up and saying it belongs in the Olympics. He’s standing up and saying it belongs in the game of hockey.”

While NHL teams such as the Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens currently help the CWHL member teams, the league hasn’t gotten league-wide support. This opens an opportunity for the NWHL if Bettman likes the business model he sees.

“I think (the NHL will) get behind the model when they believe it’s the right model and I think once they put their stamp of approval on it and believe what they see is a good, viable, long term product that brings not just women’s hockey players to the forefront, but fans of hockey,” women’s hockey legend Angela Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero was a part of the first American women’s ice hockey team, which won gold in Nagano, has worked out with NHL athletes, served as a member of the IOC and most recently served as a member of the IIHF Athletes committee.

She was also part of the first Blades team with the CWHL and helped advise Rylan about aspects of the creation of the league. Now, she’s adamant in pointing out that she’s not directly affiliated with either league. A difference in opinion in how the league was being structured led her to parting ways with Rylan before it got off the ground.

“This is just another vehicle,” Ruggiero said. ” … How do you encourage more participation but also convert more fans? I think that this is very interesting value prop for the NHL right now, how to take this taciturn segment and turn it into NHL fans.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the two-league model will continue into the future and become successful, but the two still have one goal in common: grow the sport of women’s hockey.

“I think the whole two-league thing will probably resolve itself at some point,” said Burke. “In other words, one will survive, the other won’t, they’ll merge, whatever, at some point some of the confusion will get sorted out, but it’s a very slow go.”

And as the NWHL carves out its niche in the hockey world alongside CWHL, Rylan continues to wear multiple hats within the NWHL to ensure the league is a success. Beyond being the league’s founder, she’s serving as the acting commissioner and head disciplinarian, as well as general manager of the Riveters.

“It’s nice to have a pulse on what’s happening on the team level … knowing what the struggles may be for the players and how to correct them,” Rylan said.

However, it’s hard to ignore the notion of a conflict of interest when the league disciplinarian is also a GM overseeing a quarter of the league’s player. While it’s a decision Rylan doesn’t regret, she has said she will look for a new Riveters GM before next season.

It’s  lot for anyone under 30 to take on, but with nearly a full season under her belt she has just one thing to say to the skeptics:

“I would tell them that its okay that they were skeptical, it’s human nature, and I would ask them what they think about the league right now.”

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    Where is the line?

    They say seeing is believing, but why, in terms of domestic violence, does it take actual evidence to believe athletes have done something punishable?

    Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy is the latest football player to have previous issues thrust back into the limelight because photographic evidence was released. He followed in the footsteps of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, both of which caused deafening public outcries after Rice’s elevator video made it onto the Internet and the images of Peterson’s son’s post-switch punishment began to circulate.

    By now, football fans and casual observers have had time to hear about, view and form opinions on the bruised, jarring photos of Nicole Holder, Hardy’s on-again, off-again ex-girlfriend whom he allegedly physically abused and threatened.

    You’ve seen the photos of Holder’s discolored back and the underside of her chin on Deadspin. You’ve read the police report in which she describes the assault, as well as Hardy’s alleged stalking and the overall fear for her life. The outrage has been palpable, but why did we need to see these images and hear Holder’s account for so many to accept that while Hardy is a good football player, he might also be a poor excuse for a man?

    Holder’s resignation is perhaps the most telling detail of all. In the police reports from the night of the 2014 incident, Holder told Officer Jeffrey Kendrick, “It doesn’t matter; nothing is going to happen to him anyways.”

    She was right, kind of.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/uTFtVcFzJ2VG?autoPlay=false]

    After Hardy was found guilty of assaulting a female and communicating threats in a North Carolina court — charges that were later expunged after the verdict was dismissed on appeal when Holder reportedly chose not to cooperate with prosecutors — the case was left to the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who saw the photos, eventually suspended Hardy for 10 games — in addition to the ostensible 15-game paid suspension Hardy received when he was on the Commissioner’s exempt list during the 2014 season. However, due to the lobbying of the NFL Players Association on his behalf, the 10-game ban was reduced to four games. Hardy made his debut with the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5 against the New England Patriots — “energizing the pass-rush,” as described by the Cowboys’ official site.

    Holder’s fears ultimately came true. Hardy sat out his punishment and then made it back onto the football field, where he was embraced by fans, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and certain media members who believed the defensive end should be given a second chance. It was business as usual for the player who, despite being suspended for domestic violence, found his way onto another roster.

    Jones claims he hadn’t seen the photos of Holder when he chose to sign Hardy but said he believed Hardy deserved a second chance. The public relations hit Hardy brought with him didn’t seem to matter, nor did the character concerns that could be traced back to Hardy’s collegiate career. As long as he helped the Cowboys get wins (Dallas is 0-4 with Hardy), then he was going to get a spot on the team.

    Ahead of Hardy’s season debut, many applauded FOX Sports analyst Katie Nolan for her stance against Hardy following his first public comments after the suspension. Hardy was smug, he was confident and he was back to disrespecting women, all before he stepped foot on the field for his first game. It seemed the four games did little to force Hardy to change his ways. Nolan’s video went viral as social-media users stood behind her and agreed that the Cowboys were crossing a line by allowing Hardy on the field. But what came of it? Not much.

    After Deadspin’s report, Hardy offered a quasi-apology via Twitter, expressing regret for his past actions. Hardy said he was “Dedicated to being the best person & teammate that I can be,” but on Wednesday, he altered his Twitter profile to proclaim his innocence. “Innocent until proven guilty-lack of knowledge & information is just ignorance-the unjust/prejudicial treatment of diff categories of people is discrimination,” Hardy wrote. One week after making his Cowboys debut, Hardy got into scuffles with teammates and a coach on the sideline during a game against the New York Giants. After the game, Jones labeled Hardy a “real leader.”

    In a society filled by a constant stream of information, and where seeing means believing, it’s important to still take certain things at face value. When a man is found guilty of beating a woman and threatening that woman’s life, we shouldn’t need pictures to make us believe that he’s bad. We shouldn’t brush the accusations aside because he wears the jersey of our favorite football team.

    Not everyone deserves a second chance. Hardy proved he didn’t even before Holder’s photos were released and opinions about him changed. What’s going to stop him now? He’s on a team, and until the public makes a change in the way athletes are held accountable for their actions, until we accept that not every athlete is worth our time, then those that aren’t will continue to coast through and weather the brief backlash.

    Hardy isn’t a real leader, and it shouldn’t take photographic evidence to make us feel that way.

    Still raising her game

    “I was saying goodbye to our Japanese girls on the team and they go, ‘My goal, my dream is to play against you one day.’” – Julie Chu

    As a New England prep school, Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., is proud of its hockey history. If it’s not apparent to anyone walking into the small lobby of Remsen Arena filled with mementos of past successes, then it becomes so once you walk through the double doors and into the rink.

    Once inside, the most noticeable features are the seven banners hanging beside the scoreboard. Each banner is stitched with an athlete’s name and Olympic achievements in the Wild Boars’ blue and gold.

    On the far side is one for Phoebe Staenz, a member of Sweden’s Sochi bronze-medal team, accompanied by banners for Sochi silver-medalist Josephine Pucci, Turin bronze-medalist Kim Insalaco, and Robert McVey, the lone male who won gold with Team USA in 1960.

    Then there are three names that have become synonymous with Team USA women’s ice hockey — Angela Ruggiero, Hilary Knight and Julie Chu.

    Gathering below the banners on a Saturday night in January are fans of all ages, though noticeably most are women and girls, waiting for the game to start. Some are grasping on to homemade signs, others walk in groups proudly donning their own jerseys belonging to Choate, the Southern and Shoreline Stars, and Connecticut Northern Lights.

    Out on the ice the two teams are lined up and dressed in the colors of one of hockey’s most illustrious rivalries, the black and gold of Boston and the blue, red and white of Montreal. While the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens may be bitter rivals, the women of the Canadians Women’s Hockey League’s (CWHL) Boston Blades and Montreal Stars are actually united for a common goal: Grow the sport of women’s hockey.

    * * *

    As of 2014, USA Hockey had 67,230 women and girls registered to play. In 2002-03, the year Julie Chu made her Olympic debut, there were 45,971 females registered. Compared to the men, who now have over 500,000 documented players, it may not seem like substantial growth, but it’s a bit more impressive if one takes into account the fact that the year Chu made her switch from figure skating to ice hockey there were less than 10,000 girls playing under USA Hockey.

    When Chu wanted to trade in her figure skates for bulkier ice hockey skates, her parents didn’t think to tell her no, even if, in 1990, the world was still eight years away from seeing women’s hockey popularized on the Olympic stage.

    “[Figure skating] lasted less than three months and I must admit Julie was not very graceful,” Miriam Chu remembers as she waits for her daughter to skate out for warm-ups with the Stars. “Those bunny hops? It was not her thing. To this day she blames me because I would bundle her up, so she couldn’t move her arms, so when she fell, she was like a turtle that ended up on her shell …

    “When she asked if she could play hockey and we said, ‘Yes,’ it didn’t even dawn on us that maybe we shouldn’t.”

    * * *

    Almost 15 years since leaving Wallingford, Julie Chu finds herself back at Choate, where the rink may be slightly different and noticeably warmer, but the memories and faces remain the same.

    She waits amongst her Montreal Stars teammates with her back facing the banners, waiting to be introduced as one of the night’s starters.

    Chu remembers watching the 1998 Olympic Games in Japan and seeing fellow Choate alumna — “Choaties,” as they call themselves — Ruggiero, winning gold for her country. Chu remembers the Games causing that aha moment, making her realize hockey was something she could strive to do for the rest of her life.

    It no longer had to be just a fun hobby.

    The 1998 Olympic Team gave her women similar to herself to whom she could look up, and four Games later, she has stepped into that same role, being the one who inspires others.

    “I remember looking up to Julie Chu and walking around [Choate’s] campus and seeing her picture or Angela Ruggiero’s picture and being like, ‘Wow I want to be like those girls one day,’” recalls Knight before lacing up her own skates as the Blades’ captain to play against Chu and the Stars. “So to be able to play on the same teams as them is a dream come true, for sure.”

    At just 25, Knight is following in the footsteps of her USA teammates and becoming an inspiration in her own right with campaigns like Always’ #LikeAGirl.

    In Chu’s opinion, being role models and showing young girls that there are successful women like them is one of the biggest components to developing the sport. Whether it’s staying after a game to sign autographs, or getting out in the community to run clinics, Julie understands that her talent has given her both a stage and a responsibility.

    “We get this amazing platform to be able to hopefully influence others in a positive way and hopefully whether that’s through our play on the ice and how we carry ourselves, our sportsmanship, our class, or our effort,” Chu explains.

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/03/chuswembed1.jpg” height=600 credit=”Julie Chu shows her Vancouver silver medal to a youngster at the 2010 Winter Olympics. (Getty Images)”]

    * * *

    Girls in newly bought black-and-gold beanies crowd Remsen’s already-crammed lobby, excitedly holding photos and scrap pieces of papers for players to sign.

    “After every game we do autographs and we have the ability to interact with our fans,” Chu explains. “Some days it’s small crowds and some days it’s bigger.”

    When the athletes walk through the double doors, the girls erupt and quickly push to get a prime spot to talk to the women they had just seen out on the ice in a Blades uniform.

    “We don’t have the same support system that our male counterparts have and in some respects it’s great because it keeps us here for the right reasons, but in other respects you’re paying for a full tank to get down to Connecticut to play an outreach game,” laughs Knight. “But at the same time you have to realize where our sport comes from and where it’s going and it has to start somewhere  …  small steps.”

    It would’ve been easy for Chu to board a bus after Montreal’s loss and head back to Canada, or spend her Sunday off with family in Connecticut. Instead, she chose to run a local girls’ clinic at the RoseGarden Ice Rink in Norwich, a task she’s becoming more and more comfortable with.

    “Whenever I get a chance to return home and run some local events, especially for the hockey community, I want to,” says Chu. “This past summer, I ran my first hockey school out of Bridgeport Wonderland of Ice and it was great. We had about 40 girls a part of it and again, it was a little bit last-minute. I’m getting better at the organization part. I’m used to the show up and go, so I’m working on the prepping in advance and the cost of ice time.”

    Last minute or not, Julie got the turnout she was hoping for on the Sunday afternoon. She even had a few girls patiently waiting to see if there’d be room for them to join, too.

    “In 1990 when I first started, you’d see one or two girls maximum all year long throughout a hockey season and now and even as I got older and older, you saw more and more and more and now there’s young girls that don’t even know that it should be weird that girls are playing hockey,” says Chu. “You’ll see some of the younger kids here that grew up in the environment, our early 10-12-year olds or early teens; they’re the direct benefit of ‘98 because once ‘98 happened the growth of women’s hockey was tremendous.”

    Whether it’s walking through the rink’s entrance with her family and teammates in tow, running around making last minute adjustments for the upcoming sessions, or even washing her hands in the restroom, there is always someone who recognizes her. There is always someone eager to talk, which she is willing to do, if only for just a few spared seconds.

    “There’s always someone better than you out there and God gave you this wonderful gift and she should do something to give back,” says Miriam Chu. “So I’m glad she’s running hockey camps.”

    * * *

    Since taking home silver in the 2002 Olympic Games, Chu has grown into her role on the team, but she’s also learned to adapt, realizing who she is as an athlete now is not the same player she was at the age of 20.

    “A role within a team changes tremendously,” Chu says. “You go from being just a young kid, you have no responsibilities in the world, you just go out there and you play and you have fun, but as you get older and you take on that role of, say, leadership, then you have to still take care of the on-ice portion of executing plays, but you also have to be able to have a good pulse on the team and direct the young kids.”

    In 2014, as the most veteran player on the team, she was faced with a fourth-line position that didn’t get as much ice time. This caused her to look outward to see what she could do to help her time off-ice as well, which led her to taking on the team’s “mom” role, something that came naturally.

    “Julie’s charge, her personal charge, is to always make sure that everyone always felt welcome and comfortable, and if they needed anything, she’s there to help, sort of like the mother bear of the group,” recalls Harvard and Team USA head coach Katey Stone.

    The women on the team looked up to the veteran forward — some, like Knight, even before they made the Olympic squad.

    “When I first came [into the national program] I was still in school at Choate and Chuie and Angela took me under their wing and they’re like, ‘This is how we do it, here we go,’ and really supported me throughout the way,” recalls Knight. “I was nurtured within the team, which is great.”

    * * *

    Chu says she would have understood if her parents told her to stick with soccer and figure skating, but she’s grateful they were so accepting. She and her sister, Christina, joined their brother Richard at the Bridgeport Wonderland of Ice where hockey immediately became the family sport. Full days were spent in the rink watching game after game or practice after practice.

    When Chu was 11 years old she split her time with a growing all-girls league, the CT Polar Bears, and her boys team, before moving solely to the all-girls team to hone her skills for the chance of making the Olympics.

    “I took her to a U-20 tournament in Canada, the highest level of tournament in Canada at the time,” recalled Maurice Fitzmaurice, the CT Polar Bears founder. “She was 11, playing 20-and-under and the coaches didn’t know who she was. [Coaches] knew my team members, but they didn’t know her. After the first game they were asking me, ‘Who the hell was that?’ So I said, ‘Well boys, you’re gonna have to wait a little while. She’s in the fifth grade!’ She was still a wunderkind from the start, but more than that she’s a wunderkind as a person.”

    Her talent and drive brought her to Choate and then Harvard where she was coached by Stone and won the NCAA’s Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women’s college hockey. It also got her on to the national team and in a place to make the Olympic roster four times, but her off-ice personality has made her a true ambassador to the sport.

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/03/chuswembed2.jpg” height=600 credit=”Julie Chu serving as United States flagbearer during the Sochi Olympics Closing Ceremony. (Getty Images)”]

    ***

    In 2014 Chu was bestowed with the honor of carrying the American flag during the Sochi closing ceremony. As a woman who once had to prove to Stone and her staff that she belonged on the team, Chu was now voted to represent all of Team USA and America, becoming the second American ice hockey player to do so in that capacity.

    “It speaks volumes to the person and the master that Julie is, and not just because she expands her friendship and loyalty to her immediate teammates, but she does that to kids on other countries’ teams and different sports,” says Stone. “I just think a large majority of people know who Julie is, know what she stands for and wanted to bestow that honor on her.”

    It also speaks to the popularity of women’s ice hockey.

    Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have been possible for a female hockey player to take on that role, but Chu has proven the game has gained ground, despite rumblings that it should be removed from the Olympics for lack of international competition.

    “It’s hard,” Chu explains. “Until we can find other ways for these countries [outside of North America] to start investing more in their programs, the growth is going to be a little slower, but we are seeing a bit of a push. After 2010, when the president [of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge] at the time said that maybe we’re going to have to pull women’s hockey, it kind of lit a little fire under our International Ice Hockey Federation and got them to start doing all-nations camps in the summer.”

    In 2011 the IIHF introduced the World Girl’s Ice Hockey Weekend, a worldwide initiative to allow girls to try hockey for free. The 2014 fourth annual weekend was held in 150 locations across the United States and in 32 countries internationally.

    Team USA’s Knight and Anne Schleper made additional headlines when they participated in the practices of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Internationally, Chu has participated in the camps and initiatives hosted by the IIHF to bring players from different countries together in an environment that supports growth and long-term learning.

    “I got to be in one in Slovakia in the summer of 2010 and basically they had an under-18 age group and over-18 and they brought in probably anywhere between 12 and 15 nations and we just mix-matched into teams,” Chu says. “So I was on a team with Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Canadians, Czechs, all these players together and it was such a powerful time.”

    While at the camp, Chu found out she was an inspiration to the Japanese team, which hadn’t made the Olympics since the sport’s 1998 inception. That year, as the games were held in Nagano, Team Japan was given an automatic bid.

    In 2010, after years of missed qualifiers, Japan was an up-and-coming national team making its way in the B pool, while the United States continued to securely play in the A pool. “Maybe two years later they earned a spot in the A pool and I played them and it was awesome,” Chu says. “I go, ‘Now you’ve got to get to the Olympics’ and then they got there and it was really fun to see them work so hard to get there.”

    In Sochi, Team Japan finished eighth overall in the eight-team field, but they had accomplished what they had set out to do. They had made the Olympics and played with Julie Chu.

    Chu’s influence has reached beyond America’s borders, though it’s not necessarily what’s been accomplished so far, but what goals still remain. For instance, a competitive Olympic field, or a league that can pay women to play like the men.

    Chu preaches patience in the sport’s expansion. She points out, Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was competitive men’s ice hockey and neither will its female counterpart.

    At 33, with her own Olympic future unknown, Chu will continue to play in the growing CWHL, in search of her third Clarkson Cup. She’ll carry-on as an assistant coach of women’s hockey at Concordia University and find the time to run clinics for the next generation, all for the furtherance of the sport she loves.

    It may be a slow, uphill effort, but as she skates forward in her Stars jersey, to the energetic cheers of a sold out Remsen Arena, in a non-Olympic year, it appears to be an effort that is working.

    One last save by Richter

    “Who you are, defines what you do…” – Across the Universe

    In September 2003, Mike Richter held a press conference to make the emotional announcement that all professional athletes in their prime dread; he would be retiring from the New York Rangers and the National Hockey League. It was a difficult decision and ultimately one he had no control over.

    Richter wanted to continue to play, but he was told the risk for him was too high. After two head injuries left lingering symptoms, the Stanley Cup-winning veteran was informed he could no longer physically compete and was advised to walk away.

    His problems began on March 27, 2002, while playing at home in Madison Square Garden against the Atlanta Thrashers. As the Rangers’ starting goaltender, he was taken out during the first period when a slap shot from Chris Tamer hit his mask just above the right ear.

    It was later determined that he had suffered from a fractured temporal bone and would have to miss the rest of the regular season.

    “At first you say you can’t practice tomorrow, and then you might not play on Thursday and wait to the weekend to see how you feel,” Richter describes. “When you get progressively worse the stakes for coming back become higher. I was devastated when the neurosurgeon said, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea for you to return this year [and] we don’t know enough to know when you’ll recover, but we know you will.’ I was surprised when she asked me to sit the rest of the season, but you honor that because it’s your brain, not your elbow.”

    ***

    The late Tim Taylor, who spent nearly three decades coaching at Yale in addition to stints as coach of Team USA and the U.S. Olympic team, tried to convince Richter to play for the Bulldogs in 1985 when Richter was an 18-year-old coming out of the Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y.. Richter ultimately decided on the University of Wisconsin, but nearly twenty years later he was drawn back to New Haven’s Ivy League campus after his retirement from the NHL because of its Forestry and Environmental school.

    When he wasn’t in the rink, working with Taylor or current head coach Keith Allain as a volunteer assistant coach with Yale’s hockey team, or with his family, Richter was studying under the Forestry school’s former dean, Gus Speth. He became fixated on the idea of using the capital market to create innovative ways to fix existing environmental problems. This is an interest that would eventually be the driving force that led him to start his own company, Healthy Planet Partners, a for-profit business that finances updates to existing building infrastructures.

    According to the company website, HPP is a company that “retrofits commercial buildings with clean energy that is efficient, reliable, and renewable. We function both as a green bank and as a chief energy officer for your building to lower operational costs and reduce environmental impact.”

    “I really like the idea of having the capital markets solve some of the environmental problems,” Richter claimed from inside the company’s intimate first-floor office in Greenwich, Conn. “They’ve created some of them and they can solve them if the market is allowed to function properly. If you can get energy for cheaper. you should get it. If you can get clean energy for cheaper, you should get it, and we have the technology to do just that.”

    A decision as miniscule as changing light bulbs or switching a boiler system can make a significant impact environmentally and monetarily. That is the kind of service Richter and his team have striven to provide since the company’s inception in 2011. Whether it is a commercial building or sports facility, Richter has found it’s all about using the technology available to upgrade antiquated buildings.

    Given his background, Richter admittedly finds working with sports most intriguing and thinks it’s crucial for athletes to realize the environment around them impacts their performance equally as much as their own bodies.

    “Sports buildings I particularly like,” Richter says. “There’s an irony with these athletes [that] are such high performers. You look at the Rangers organization over the years, they worry about your nutrition, they worry about sleep, you worry about your hydration, your training methods. Everything is about being more efficient and then they’re playing in a building that uses yesterday’s technology. Nobody does that and doesn’t end up getting hurt in the long run; you really have to update every aspect of it. So the sports facilities really have a nice kind of metaphor there.”

    ***

    If it were an elbow, he would have fought back, just as he had after his two reconstructive knee surgeries. But the elbow is a far cry from the brain. A second head injury caused by an on-ice collision with Todd Marchant on Nov. 5, 2002, ultimately ended his career.

    Richter understood the importance of his life outside of the rink, but it didn’t make the decision to give up the game he’d been playing the majority of his life any easier. “It’s not a matter of taking the pain. It’s a matter of making yourself healthy again, and as much as I was devastated by that news by the time May came around that year and I hadn’t fully recovered, it was almost less of a shock for her to say I think you should end your career.”

    Just like that, the career Richter had been dreaming of since the days of the Broad Street Bullies was over and the identity he had since being drafted by the Rangers in 1985 was gone. He was forced to ask himself, what’s next?

    “I don’t think it was easy at any which time, retiring,” Richter says. “Not only for what you’ve just given up, but also saying now, who am I? What am I? What am I doing? Where do I fit in?

    “It was exciting because there was a lot that you necessarily have to put aside in order to play well and focus on your day to day job, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. It was so much fun, you miss it every day, but there’s other interests that you have [too].”

    Luckily for Richter, he had been cultivating those interests since his days as a multi-sport athlete in his hometown of Flourtown, Penn., and it wasn’t long after retirement that he realized being a goalie was only a small part of what made him who he was. He soon found being No. 35 didn’t necessarily define him, and not wearing the jersey didn’t mean the end of him.

    ***

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/02/wolanin-richter-taylor-marottolo-hainsworth0495.jpg” height=600 credit=”(Yale Athletics)”]

    Returning for his degree was never a question of if, just a question of when.

    Richter was drafted by the Rangers in 1985 and lasted a brief two years playing collegiately before making the ultimate choice to further his professional career as opposed to earning his degree.

    “Goaltenders are individual players on a team that really doesn’t have individual stars, so to speak, but Mike continued to progress,” says Jeff Sauer, Richter’s coach at Wisconsin. “He played in the Olympics and we knew once after that, the exposure of being on the world scene and so forth, I knew he wasn’t long for the world here at Wisconsin.

    “But one of the things that he promised his mom and dad when he came to Wisconsin, and again after his dad passed away, was that he would finish his degree.”

    Richter’s father, a constant driving force in his son’s education, passed away shortly after he left for Wisconsin, but his son never forgot his promise.

    In the summers between hockey seasons Richter returned to Madison to take summer classes, and also enrolled in offseason courses at Cornell, where his then girlfriend, now wife, Veronica was a graduate student.

    “It was a nice way to kind of move from one world to another and still continue to chip away at my degree,” says Richter, who holds a degree in Ethics, Politics and Economics, with a concentration in environmental policy.

    Attending Yale following his retirement helped him transition from his life as a hockey player and jumpstarted what would become his venture into the environmental business.

    “I think the bigger adjustment is personal,” Richer says. “You do have a bit of a loss of identity, a death of who you once were and a beginning of your next phase of life. That can be scary and exciting at the same time, and it was. It’s hard to prepare for, and school really helped in that transition.

    “You know what you miss and you know how much you love that, but when you have another thing right in front of you that you really enjoy and focus on and want to get the most out of, it really takes the sting away of what you lost and gets you excited for the future.”

    ***

    Mike Richter had more left to give.

    He was never an outspoken leader. Words like quiet, thoughtful and reserved could be and have been used to describe Richter’s demeanor. He was a go-to for the media in Manhattan. Even if reporters had to lean in a little closer to hear what he had to say, they wanted to listen.

    Since high school he’s chosen to lead by example, not by volume of voice, and that’s something that’s resonated with those around him.

    “He was the hardest working guy on the ice,” recounts JJ Reydel, a former teammate of Richter’s days of playing for Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, “and even though he was really quiet [at Germantown] his effort and his talent and everything else spoke volumes for the rest of us. We always felt that as long as he was in goal we had a really good chance to win and he was always there.”

    In Richter’s freshman year the team made a play for the city’s championship, the Flyers Cup. As the story goes, the team had two solid goaltenders, Mike Richter and a senior, but it was the freshman who had shown an innate skill for the position.

    Joe Richter was the upperclassman, backed by his younger brother.

    So what was a coach to do? One would assume he’d play the future NHL starter, but Mike wouldn’t let him.

    “Mike stepped right up and said to the coach, ‘This is my brother’s team, this is my brother’s game. It’s his game, he should have it,’ and so he gave it to his brother and his brother actually went out and got a shutout,” Reydel remembers. “We won the game and won the cup, which is awesome, but it’s just one more way that Mike is a guy that just gets it.”

    Richter has gone from leading teams on the ice to leading teams in the boardroom of his own enterprises, but he’s never changed his leadership style. He’s not afraid to ask questions and learn from the people he’s chosen to surround himself with. That’s how he got his first break playing for the Rangers’ main club after stints in various minor affiliates, and that’s how he’s ensuring his businesses remain successful.

    “I think it’s harder when you’re younger, but you don’t have to stand up and give a speech always,” says Richter. “There’s different methods and personalities and the most powerful one is leading by example. If you want the people around you to work hard, then you work harder. If you want to have discipline in your organization then you be an example of that.”

    ***

    Goalies are known for being weird.

    So what happens when a goaltender isn’t? What happens when a winning goalie captures the heart of one of the toughest sports cities in the world and then walks away from the game, only to go on with his life and like any other Average Joe looking for a career change could do?

    Does that normalcy actually make Mike Richter the weird one?

    “He was well rounded and he just comes off that way,” says Allain, Yale’s current head coach and a longtime friend of Richter’s. “When you think of that eccentric goalie who’s off by himself and does weird stuff on game days, Mike wasn’t that guy, or if he was that guy he was able to channel it in ways you didn’t notice it.”

    Allain knows the reputation that comes with being a goalie; he’s one himself. It is because of that connection that their paths first crossed when Richter was a teenager, first at summer hockey schools and later in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

    At a young age Richter exuded talent and a competitiveness that was hard to match and made him stand out. He was the first out on the ice and the last to leave it, and when he was out there he had to be the best.

    In practice he wanted to find success in every drill. If a shot beat him he wanted to know why. He was quiet and soft-spoken, but he was hard on himself. He would get frustrated, but he wouldn’t take his frustrations out on his teammates. Instead he used it as fuel and pushed his own limits.

    He wanted more shots taken on him to prove that he could make the stop. There was no accepting that a good shot may slip under the pads or soar past the blocker. A good shot wasn’t an excuse for a goal.

    “He wanted to be the best at everything he did,” recalls Allain. “When we were doing station work like goalie fundamentals he competed so hard and he was pretty hard on himself. It’s one of the things that made him great. I worried at the time that it would work against him because he was so hard on himself whenever he made a mistake or allowed a goal, but it was that drive that really led to his success.”

    The competitiveness didn’t just happen in the rink, Richter excelled at academics too. While attending high school at Germantown Academy achievements in the classroom were just as, if not more, important than his accomplishments on the ice.

    “He was always the one who was dragging everybody out on the ice and staying late, doing whatever he possibly could to get as many shots on him as possible,” Reydel remembers.

    Reydel was two years older than Richter and one year younger than Richter’s older brother Joe, who served as the senior captain of the Germantown team. Reydel’s family grew close to the Richters and his father taught the future pro in AP History.

    “I think anyone who’s actually met him and knows him, [knows] he’s a pretty intellectual guy that cares about other things than just sports,” Reydel says. “I think a lot of that was born at Germantown Academy where he was asked pretty significantly to do his work first.”

    Richter took advance placement courses in addition to playing hockey and other sports, including football, but after two years he made the decision to leave home for Northwood Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y.

    To Tom Fleming, Richter’s coach at Northwood, he will always be Michael, a true senior who came to his school with talent comparable to Tommy Barrasso’s and a drive to get to the highest level in everything he did.

    “[We had] the ability to have a high level practice with high level hockey players and then have the academics right there, where a lot of kids have to travel at a distance these days, which is difficult,” Fleming says. “But Michael was a very smart kid. He could have gone to Harvard leaving [Northwood]; he could have gone to Yale.”

    ***

    Richter, who these days eschews his familiar goalie pads in favor of being a defenseman and team rover in his men’s league, might have retired from the NHL almost 12 years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s left the sports world entirely. Hockey is in his blood and he recognizes how reliant the sport is on the environmental elements. The major American sports leagues are recognizing it, too.

    Programs like NHL Green and NASCAR Green are allowing the organizations to take responsibility for their entities while also urging the fans to do the same. The NHL launched a “Gallons for Goals” initiative and released a 2014 sustainability report, which laid out the best practices amongst its 30 clubs.

    “It’s pretty interesting because these are competitive organizations amongst each other, but they actually do share a lot of the best practices,” Richter says. “I think what you’ll see from the sports teams and leagues over the next decade will be pretty jaw dropping. The NRDC, Green Sports Alliance, there’s some really good groups out there with cutting edge ideas.”

    Richter is spending time working with these institutions to ensure they have the best choices to make the wisest options.

    Prior to co-founding HPP with Germantown classmate Ron Gonen, Richter was also a part of the team that founded Environmental Capital Partners, a $100 million equity firm that funds investments in resourceful efficiency. In addition, he launched Athletes for a Healthy Planet with the goal of helping athletes continue to understand their connections to the environment. He is joined in that venture by fellow hockey players Mark Messier and Angela Ruggiero and other high-profile athletes, including John McEnroe and Billie Jean King.

    Between those endeavors, Richter finds time to sit on the Board of Directors for Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club Foundation, groups fighting for clean water and air, fundamental needs that act as the foundation for his passion.

    “It’s a great thing to be able hike or camp or just be able to play in a tree, and when that starts getting compromised or fouled it really starts affecting the quality of your life in a negative way,” notes Richter, who makes it a yearly tradition to travel to the Adirondacks and play some old-school pond hockey. “I know a stream near my house in Philadelphia that had dioxin in it from a photo processing plant, but it meant the fish couldn’t be and in fact most of the fish couldn’t live. It just changed the way that we were able to interact with the land around us.”

    It’s an innovating time in the environmental world and Richter isn’t shying away from the possibilities he and Healthy Planet Partners can create. As a businessman Richter is going all in and approaching the unknown head-on, just as he once did during his legendary penalty-shot save against Pavel Bure in Game 4 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.